Houston Accused of Launching ‘Witch Hunt’ Against Pastors

The Houston City Council has come under fire for a subpoena against local pastors who object to a bill that bans sex-assigned bathrooms.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker
Houston Mayor Annise Parker (photo: Wikipedia)

HOUSTON — City officials in Houston have filed a subpoena against local pastors over a lawsuit regarding a bill that would do away with sex-assigned restrooms.

After citizens filed a lawsuit against the city of Houston for failing to accept petitions for the repeal of the controversial “bathroom bill,” allowing members of each sex to use each other’s restrooms, the city has subpoenaed sermons and internal church communications of local pastors, some of whom are not even a part of the lawsuit.

“City council members are supposed to be public servants, not ‘Big Brother’ overlords who will tolerate no dissent or challenge,” Alliance Defending Freedom senior legal counsel Erik Stanley said Oct. 13.

“In this case, they have embarked upon a witch hunt, and we are asking the court to put a stop to it.”

The nonprofit legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which advocates for the rights of people to freely practice their faith, has stepped in with a motion to stop the action.

The “bathroom bill” stirred controversy when the Houston City Council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in late May. Voters responded with a petition demanding that the city either add the bill to a ballot or repeal it.

Citizens submitted more than three times the number of valid signatures required by law, according to ADF, but the city attorney “defied the law and rejected the certification” of the petition, even though it had already been certified by the city secretary.

The result was a lawsuit, Woodfill v. Parker, filed by petition supporters against the city of Houston. In response, city officials subpoenaed some local pastors, requiring them to turn over internal communications with church members and any sermons mentioning the city’s actions in regards to the “bathroom bill,” city officials or “gender identity.”

ADF says that city officials are upset over the voter lawsuit filed against the city and are now illegitimately targeting pastors who are not involved in the case.

“The city’s subpoena of sermons and other pastoral communications is both needless and unprecedented,” said ADF litigation counsel Christiana Holcomb.

“The city council and its attorneys are engaging in an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of its actions. Political and social commentary is not a crime; it is protected by the First Amendment.”

In response, ADF filed a motion in the District Court of Harris County to put a stop to the subpoena, saying it is “overboard, unduly burdensome, harassing and vexatious” and that it will set a bad precedent for the expression of free speech and the voting process in the future.

“These requests, if allowed,” the brief says, “will have a chilling effect on future citizens who might consider circulating referendum petitions because they are dissatisfied with ordinances passed by the City Council. Not only will the non-party pastors be harmed if these discovery requests are allowed, but the people will suffer as well. The referendum process will become toxic, and the people will be deprived of an important check on city government provided them by the charter.”


Attorney General Abbott

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sent a letter to the Houston City Council on Oct. 15, instructing Houston city attorney David Feldman to withdraw the subpoenas filed against the pastors, the Christian Examiner reported.

“No matter what public policy is at stake, government officials must exercise the utmost care when our work touches on religious liberty,” said Abbott, who is the Republican nominee for governor in the 2014 election. “If we err, it must be on the side of preserving the autonomy of religious institutions and the liberty of religious believers.”

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian who married her same-sex partner in a civil ceremony earlier this year, indicated that the city was walking back the subpoena’s scope, The Christian Science Monitor reported Oct. 15. 

“Mayor Parker agrees with those who are concerned about the city legal department’s subpoenas for pastor’s sermons,” stated an email from Janice Evans, the city’s chief policy officer. “The subpoenas were issued by pro bono attorneys helping the city prepare for the trial regarding the petition to repeal the new Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in January. Neither the mayor nor city attorney David Feldman were aware the subpoenas had been issued until yesterday. Both agree the original documents were overly broad. The city will move to narrow the scope during an upcoming court hearing. Feldman says the focus should be only on communications related to the HERO petition process.”

Register staff contributed to this report.

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